Sivaji Ganesan – A Legend in Indian Cinema

Written by Nishanthini Ganesan
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Last Saturday, a tribute to one of the most celebrated Indian film actors in the 20th Century, was held to a full house at the Singapore Polytechnic Convention Centre. Organised by Manimaran’s Creations, this tribute show was an homage to a legend in Indian cinema, Sivaji Ganesan, from the young and old of today.

In an age where young Indians are said to rarely watch films from the past, and where the world of Indian cinema inclines itself towards a more Westernised art form to appeal to the masses, it has been perceived that the past will soon be forgotten in India.

This tribute showed otherwise.

If anything, it showed the past’s inability to disappear entirely. Sivaji Ganesan, who has to date acted in more than 300 films, a feat almost unheard of by today’s standards, showed himself to be as alluring as he was fifty years ago.

He was born Viluppuram Chinnaiahpillai Ganesan Manrayar, shortened to Ganesan. Running away from home at the age of 7 to pursue an acting career, he joined a drama troupe where he was to live without his family for the next five years, until he would finally meet them again after the death of his two older brothers. On a diet of barely anything more than curd rice for meals, day after day, he was trained expensively in acting and several Indian dance styles, namely Bharatanatyam, Kathak and Manipuri.

It was a long path for this young boy, who would grow to become the star of Indian cinema’s golden age.

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Sivaji Ganesan debuted in the 1952 Tamil film, Parasakthi. Its script was written by M. Karunanidhi, the former Cheif Minister of Tamil Nadu. Having been trained in classical Indian dance, he was able to inspire Rasa, or, specific emotions from the audience, through the use of Bhavas, gestures and facial expressions employed by the actor. Sivaji Ganesan’s voice and diction altered the course of dialogue delivery in Tamil films and plays, as well as influenced narrators on television and radio.

Though film critics were not impressed by his delivery of lines, Sivaji Ganesan’s performances on the silver screen drew the masses.

He was an intellectual, and possesed an astonishing ability to memorise and deliver long lines of dialogue with no break. In fact, his role in C.N. Annadurai’s play Sivaji Kanda Hindu Rajyam, which earned him his nickname ‘Sivaji Ganesan’ was was given to him due to his ability to memorise a 90-page script in just seven hours, and then deliver it flawlessly to Annadurai, who, overcome with emotion, gave him the part.


He was known for his versitality as an actor. His roles ranges from comedy to tragedy. He understood the dimensions of a character, and had a chameleon-like air about him, where he could transform into any character through makeup and costume. He refrained from becoming too immersed in character. As an actor, he kept an awareness of the camera, lighting, and framing even while performing.

Perhaps his most famous and celebreted scene would be his portrayal of Kattabomman, in the historical film Veerapandiya Kattabomman(1959). During this scene, a British officer, Jackson Thurai, comes to the rebel hero Kattabomman’s house to collect tax money from him. In return, Sivaji’s character delivers a long and inspiring monologue, a testimony to the Indian struggle for Independance from the British, culminating in him slamming Jackson Thurai into a table. This scene has become one of the most celebrated instances of patriotism in Indian cinema and the most well-known of Sivaji’s character portrayals.


As a professional, Sivaji Ganesan was remembered as having strict discipline on sets, an attitude cultured him in from having been beaten as a young boy in drama school for even the smallest mistakes he made. He was punctual and worked well with his co-stars and technicians. He was a strong believer that only team spirit could ensure a film’s sucess. He posessed humility, as told by renowned Indian scriptwriter and director, Aroodhas, who spoke of his working with Sivaji Ganesan.

In Aroodhas’s memoirs, he recalled having a conversation with Sivaji Ganesan, who would be sitting cross-legged on the floor outside the shooting location. Sivaji’s tutor was the elder K. D. Santhanam. During their conversation, Sivaji would be enjoying a cigarette. Occasionally, K. D. Santhanam would walk past both Aroodhas and Sivaji on his way to the shooting location from the make-up room. Immediately upon seeing his old teacher, Sivaji would dutifully leap to his feet in respect and hide the cigarette behind his back.

Today, Indian film actors hold the same respect for their acting teachers, a tradition that one cannot help but to think, has been passed on from generation to generation.

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Sivaji Ganesan acted alongside some of the most famous women in Indian cinema, including Saroja Devi, Savithri, Vanisri, and Sri Devi. Vanisri herself, remembering him fondly at the tribute last Saturday, spoke of how he flattered her daily, and told every other female actress he met to seek her advice in dressing and poise.

He got married when he was 24, the same year Parasakthi was released, in an arranged marriage to his cousin’s daughter Kamala. In a profession rife with polygamy and affairs, Sivaji remained monogamous and faithful to his wife, even dedicating his autobiography to her. The couple had four children, Prabhu, Ramkumar, Shanthi, and Thenmozhi Ganesan.

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Sivaji Ganesan collected many accalaides in his lifetime. Perhaps the most impressive was the title of Chevalier, by the Order of Arts and Literature by the Ministry of Culture, Government of France. The title of Chevalier is conffered to honour the most original and talanted of people for their contributions to the Arts and Literature in France and all over the world. Such a title, was given to this legend on the 22nd of April 1995

On the 16th of March 2012, Karnan, starring Sivaji Ganesan, was re-released in India nearly half a century after it was first shown to audiences. It had digitally restored audio and video. The film was considered both a milestone in Sivaji Ganesan’s acting career, as well as in the Indian film industry as a whole, for it brought both an actor, Sivaji Ganesan, as well as a politician and former Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh N T Rama Rao. The re-release of Karnan was met with packed halls at 72 centres across Tamil Nadu, and has to date, collected 2 crore rupees on the box office front.

It simply cannot be said that the young today have forgotten our past. Though Indian cinema has changed over the years, there are aspects of it that are timless and will last with us through the ages. Young, aspiring Indian filmmakers and actors for years to come will see Sivaji Ganesan as an inspiration and a role model. After all, legends never die. They were meant to be passed on.

2 Comment

  1. sadu says:

    Rhetoric & steam-like delivery of dialogue mistaken for good acting in the 50’s.

  2. Padumai says:

    Sivaji truly excelled on Drama, and moved on to Cinema. I think even after half century his movies are watchable.

    Unless the dialogues are delivered well the movie will be a flop. I still enjoy Sivaji movies from 1950’s and 1960’s – They have a lot to offer – Story, good dance, acting, without fights and degrading female characters

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